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Exam stress – for young people

Information for young people on exam stress, with advice on how to cope and where to go for support.

This page is also available in Welsh.

Exam stress

Exams can come with a lot of pressure and make us feel really stressed.

You might feel especially worried because of changes to exams and assessments since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

If you're struggling to cope, you're not alone. We're here to help you manage your feelings around exams and find ways to cope.

This page covers:

What is exam stress?

Lots of us know what it's like to feel stressed, but it's not easy to describe what stress is.

There's no single definition of stress, and it might feel different for you than it does for someone else. How we experience stress can feel different at different times. It can also depend on what's causing it.

Exam stress can be more than feeling nervous on the day of an exam. It can also be how you feel building up to exams, during exams and when waiting for results.

Young people we spoke to described exam stress as:

  • “Like a weight placed on top of you. While you want to succeed, I find it really difficult to because of the pressure.”
  • “Where I'm constantly feeling overwhelmed by the idea of studying or doing the exams and it causes me to lose focus. This lack of focus leads to me feeling like I'm going to fail and adds to the stress – like a snowball effect.”
  • “Knowing you have so much to do in so little time. Imagining how you know you're going to fail and feeling so stupid because you simply can't remember anything.”

Feeling stressed, worried, or under pressure around exams can be difficult to manage. But there are things that can help – it's about finding what's right for you.

What causes exam stress?

Exams can be stressful on their own, but other things might cause you to feel worse. These might include:

  • Feeling like you're not ready or prepared for exams, like leaving revision too late.
  • Worrying about how you'll feel and perform during the exam, especially when you don't know what will be in it.
  • Pressure from others, like parents, carers or teachers.
  • Pressure from yourself to get certain grades.
  • Comparing yourself to others, like believing you have to get the same results as your friends.
  • Worrying about the future, like getting into university or getting a job.
  • Coping with life changes, like moving from secondary school to college.
  • Having difficulties at home or in your relationships with family, friends or partners.
  • Having caring responsibilities for a family member or someone you live with.
  • Coping with physical or mental health problems, which could include worries about arranging reasonable adjustments for your exams.

You may also feel stressed for reasons that aren't listed here. We're all different and that's okay.

“Exam stress for me came from a fear about my future. For me it felt like there were multiple sources placing pressure on me.”

Exam stress and coronavirus

Coronavirus may cause you more stress during your exams.

You might feel worried about practical things, like:

  • How exams might look this year
  • What will happen on the day, or any last-minute changes
  • What happens if you get coronavirus before or during your exams

You might also feel stressed because:

  • You've missed out on time with your teachers in school or college
  • You have to do more mocks or assessments
  • You're worried about having to isolate and revise at home
  • Lots of things feel different for you because of the coronavirus pandemic​

Exams in both England and Wales are planned to go ahead as normal, but will probably look a bit different. You might also have to:

  • Take coronavirus tests
  • Wear a face mask

Your school or college can tell you more about how things will work on the day. For more about your mental health and the pandemic, you can visit our coronavirus hub.

“My GCSEs were cancelled so my A-Levels this year are my first official exams that I've had to sit. I feel like many in my year would vouch for the fact that it feels like no matter how much revision we do, we will always feel unprepared, as we've never had this experience before.”

How might exam stress affect me?

Exam stress can affect how we feel, think and behave. You might experience different things before, during and after your exams.

  • Anxious, worried, overwhelmed
  • Upset, teary
  • Exhausted
  • Defeated, bored, uninterested, fed up
  • Frustrated, angry
  • Embarrassed, silly, stupid
  • Easily annoyed
  • Disappointed
  • Confused
  • Shaking
  • Feeling sick
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Stomach pain
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Crying
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Forgetful
  • Restless
  • Feeling tense in your body
  • Changes in breathing, breathing very quickly
  • Sweating a lot
  • Feeling tired
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of disappointing yourself or others
  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Talking badly to yourself
  • Feeling like you can't cope
  • Feeling things are pointless
  • Doubting yourself
  • Believing everything is wrong or bad
  • Avoiding things like revision and exam planning
  • Struggling to manage day-to-day life
  • Lack of motivation
  • Not doing things you usually enjoy
  • Working too much without taking breaks

When feelings of stress become too much to manage, this can affect our mental health.

Stress can also make existing mental health problems feel harder to cope with. For more information, see our page on understanding mental health.

“For me exam stress is mainly about worrying, but it's also a whole variety of emotions – a sort of mood swing.”

Stay safe

If you feel overwhelmed, or like you want to hurt yourself, support is available for you to talk things through. You deserve help as soon as you need it.

To talk with someone confidentially about how you feel, you can:

If you feel like you may attempt suicide, or you have seriously hurt yourself, this is an emergency. You can:

  • Call 999 and ask for an ambulance.
  • Tell an adult you trust and ask them to call 999 for help.

Mental health emergencies are serious. You aren't wasting anyone's time.

Tips for coping with exam stress

Exam stress can feel like a lot to cope with, but there are things you can do to improve your wellbeing. We have tips and ideas to help you cope at different times:

Remember: we are all unique, so what works for you might be different to what works for someone else. You might also have to try a few different things to see what works best.

During exam period

You might be on study leave or you might have to continue going to school. You might also be working a part-time job. The exam period can feel long and difficult, and you might feel under pressure.

You can look after yourself in different ways:

  • Make time for things you enjoy. Find ways to release stress and celebrate progress. You could listen to music, draw, cook, play with a pet or go for a walk. You can try things alone or with friends.
  • Talk to others about how you feel. Connect with other people, especially people who are going through the same thing. For more information, see our page on talking about how you're feeling.
  • Try to find balance. Take regular breaks and be realistic about what you can do in a day. Keep things in perspective and remember that exams won't last forever.
  • Take care of your physical health. Make sure you get enough sleep, food, water and exercise. If you take regular medication, keep up with your routine.
  • Focus on yourself. Try not to compare yourself to others. Think of things you like about yourself and what you're good at – this can help boost your confidence.

For more ideas, see our page on looking after your wellbeing.​

“We're making sure we have a balance of relaxation as well… We all struggle with our mental health so trying to find this balance is extremely important.”

Preparing for an exam

While you're preparing an exam, you could try lowering stress levels by:

  • Finding a study group. If there's nothing at school, try starting one with friends or people in your class.
  • Making a revision timetable. This helps organise your revision and your breaks. You can find useful tips on the BBC Bitesize website.
  • Working in the best way for you. Be creative or active if it helps, like drawing diagrams or making up songs. Try being open to different types of studying and revision.
  • Revising in the best place for you. You might prefer the quiet or being around others. If you don't have a space to study at home, you could try at school, the library, a cafe, or a family member or friend's house.

Remember: feeling stressed about exams is normal, but you don't have to struggle on your own.

On the day of your exam

To help cope with stress on the day of your exam, you could:

  • Prepare your items the night before. Get everything you need ready to take with you, like pens and water for your exam.
  • Start your day the best you can. Try to eat breakfast and make sure you have enough time to arrive at your exam without rushing.
  • Try to ground yourself with a breathing exercise. If you feel overwhelmed in the exam, try to breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold it for two counts, and breathe out through your mouth for seven counts. If you repeat this, it can slow your breath and help keep you calm.
  • Take your time. Read the exam carefully and plan what you need to do before answering.
  • Remind yourself that it'll be over soon. You've done your best and that's all you can do.

“I was nervous but said to myself ‘by Thursday evening it will be done’. Whatever happens, when I come home I can relax, enjoy it and don't have to stress for the future.”

After your exam

To cope with stress and difficult feelings after an exam, you could:

  • Try not to compare your answers to others. If possible, avoid talking to other people about the questions, comparing answers or looking up answers online.
  • Reward yourself. Think of something to do afterwards that you enjoy. You could go out with your friends, play video games, or eat your favourite food.
  • Focus on next steps. Plan what you'll do next, like going home, doing something fun, then revising for the next exam. Think ahead in a positive way – if you have another exam, focus on the time and date that it'll be over.
  • Relax before your next exam. The stress from doing an exam can leave you feeling exhausted. You might find it hard to revise again before you take a break.

Remember: you can only try your best. Each new day is a chance to start again.

Feeling under pressure

You may feel like other people are putting a lot of pressure on you. Or you may be putting pressure on yourself.

Expectations and pressure can be hard to manage. If you're struggling, try thinking about the following:

  • Where is the pressure is coming from? It might be from yourself, a parent, family member, or carer. Maybe your school is putting pressure on you to do well.
  • What could others do to help? Let them know how you're feeling and what you'd like from them, like help with managing revision.
  • Am I comparing myself to others? People around us can influence the way we feel about ourselves. Focus on what you can do and believe in your own abilities. For more information, see our page on confidence and self-esteem.

“Even if you don't do well on tests, that doesn't mean you're any less worthy than anyone else. It may just mean you're less strong in how the school tests for knowledge.”

Where can I find support?

During exams, you may need extra support to help cope with exam stress, as well as your mental health. Remember: it's okay to ask for help at any time.

Support from school or college

Your teachers might be able to offer support to help with your exams. You could ask for help with:

  • How to revise and any tips they have
  • Topics you're struggling with
  • Preparing for exams
  • Managing worries about coronavirus
  • Balancing different subjects and topics
  • How to take care of yourself

Your school might be able to offer you more support, such as a counselling service.

If you have a mental health problem that counts as a disability, you may also be entitled to something called reasonable adjustments. For more information about reasonable adjustments, see our page on diagnosis.

If you're not sure what's available, ask a trusted adult like a teacher or school nurse what support they can offer.

“I have asked for help at school from teachers, and they have been an excellent source of help. Some subjects also have after-school revision sessions, which I find really helpful.”

Other types of support

Not all of us can find the support we need from school or college. If you feel like things are getting too much, you could:

  • Talk to someone you trust, like a family member, partner or friend. For ideas on how to start the conversation, see our page on opening up to others.
  • Find further types of support on our page on finding support.
  • Speak to someone confidentially, like Childline or The Mix.
  • Visit our useful contacts page for a list of other organisations who can help. Some offer text or instant messaging services for extra privacy.

“Everyone has value and lots of people who don't do well in exams can add value to society and the world.”

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This information was published in April 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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